Tuscany is famous for its rolling hills, scenic views and quaint villages, but there are also some real treasures to be found in the form of the region’s Medieval and Renaissance cities; the most famous of these being Florence and Pisa. Obviously these are both beautiful places to visit…but tell me pals, did you ever hear of Lucca? Because listen carefully when I say: this place really is an ABSOLUTE GEM.
We headed to the city by train from the port city of Livorno. Having been to many a tourist hotspot since we’d begun our travels around the Mediterranean, I was fully accustomed to being in the centre of crowds of tourists in search of the true Italian experience; so it goes without saying that as the train pulled into the station, I began mentally preparing myself for more of these crowds. But, to my surprise, we were two of approximately twenty people to step off of the train. And of those twenty, we were the only pair who didn’t look like they came from round these parts. Well. Blow me down and pick me up again! This was a completely different vibe to what I’d experienced everywhere else in Tuscany- more similar to the tranquil conditions I’d experienced in the mountaintop villages of Marche, where hardly any tourist ventures. What. A. Treat.
Related: What to do in Marche
Without any real idea of where we were going, we set off in the opposite direction to the railway, not really knowing what we might find. After mere minutes we reached a big old green space (aka, grass), crowned with a big old wall with a row of trees perched on top. And this lovely wall, built by Leonardo da Vinci himself, surrounds the city of Lucca. On a sunny Autumn morning, the golden leaves of the trees rustling on top was a downright lovely sight to behold, and I was eager to see what treasures the walls held.
Towers = powers
A stone staircase hidden in part of the jagged wall led us to the wide pathway along the top, and from there we were able to look out across the rooftops of the entire city, punctuated with medieval towers like grand old exclamation marks on the horizon. Lucca is a city filled with towers, mostly dating from around the 13th century when owning a tower was a big time status symbol, and rich families across the city were just dying to show off how much money- and therefore power- they had. (Clearly this was once a common trait of wealthy families all across Europe, as I discovered the same situation re Towers in the Peloponnese area of Greece. To be fair even nowadays if the family next door commissioned a tower to be constructed I’d presume them to have a fair bit of dolla, it’s just obviously not exactly the done thing any more)
The most famous landmark of this pretty little city is without a doubt the Torre Guinigi, mainly due to the fact that it’s got a roof garden perched at the very top, complete with evergreen oak trees sprouting like a puff of smoke from a chimney stack. If that’s not a cool sight to behold then I don’t know what is.
Winding streets and silent courtyards
The thing that blew me away- even above the beauty of the architecture and the autumnal air all around us- was the fact that when we stepped foot into the actual city, it was completely silent. In recent years I’ve become more and more a fan of the quiet, hidden-away locations over the big bustling cities, and so Lucca, it turns out, was right up my street. My winding, medieval street.
We turned into an alleyway and headed towards an open square in the distance with another tower keeping guard over the whole silent scene. All I could hear were our footsteps, and the odd twittering of a bird. As we rounded the corner into the square, a local mother rattled past us with a pram, and disappeared down an adjoining alley. A small boy kicked a lonely chestnut around in front of the gigantic white cathedral while he waited for his family to come outside. I’m sure that in summer the city crowds up a bit, but in early December when we were there, it truly felt for a while at least, that we were the only visitors.
IT WAS MUSIC TO MY EARS!!
The city is so compact that it’s perfect for strolling around on an Autumnal day like the one we were lucky enough to get; sometimes called ‘The city of 100 churches’, it’s filled to the brim with stunning architecture (you know, aside from all those towers), and it seemed like we were greeted with a new spectacular sight around every turn.
The most important question of all…what should you eat in Lucca??
You know I’m really the sort to get hangry within 2-3 hours of my last meal, so the ever-important moment of any day is figuring out what on earth I should eat. And as we happened to be visiting Lucca during Autumn, it seemed only right that we should stick with the seasons and sample some classic fall fare.
In Tuscany during Autumn, chestnuts are all the rage. Chestnut trees do particularly well in mountainous areas, and the ‘fruit’ of the trees can be ground into flour, as well as puréed or roasted in the more classic way that you’ve probably heard of before. We’d already done our research, and therefore knew that a good place to sample some chestnutty goodness would be at the Pizzeria da Felice (behind the Piazza San Michele, FYI). We tucked into as many different edible things as we could muster at this tiny restaurant-in-the-wall. I mean, when you’re only there for one day, why wouldn’t you!?
Firstly castagnaccio- a type of cake made from chestnut flower, water, olive oil, pine nuts, rosemary and raisins. Those are the only ingredients, and when I say ‘cake,’ it was really the densest most un-cakelike substance I’ve ever tasted. I enjoyed it, but if you bite into a piece of this expecting some kind of Victoria sponge, you’ll be sorely disappointed, pals.
Necci are pancakes made from chestnut flour and water. (This is what I love about Italian cooking, guys- it’s simple but effective!) You can have these with ricotta for a sweeter treat, as like the castagnaccio this is by no means for those with a sweet tooth.
Steering away from the chestnut theme, we also tried cecina; ie chickpea pizza. Now this was my favourite of all. Literally crafted from just chickpea flour, salt, water and olive oil, this batter is baked in an oven, pizza-style, and eaten just like that. There’s no better way to add to the rosy glow of Autumn than tucking into an Autumnal feast to match, and sitting on the wooden stools for a while in Pizzeria da Felice (there must be no more than 8 seats in the entire place) was also a good way to warm up the old hands, to tell you the truth.
The Roman rule and the perfect coffee spot
Before heading back to the train and the crowded streets of what felt like the rest of the entire world, it was pretty obvious that it was highly necessary to find a place for a coffee.
The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is a square which is not a square, and the ideal place to sit in the sunshine pondering the day and sipping on a coffee or two. The reason it’s not a square? Well that, my friends, is because back in the time of Roman rule, there was an amphitheatre right on this very same spot, which as we all now are rather rounded in shape. The amphitheatre was built around the 2nd century BC, but nowadays what little remains of the 10,000 seat arena lies a few metres below the surface of the ground. The 18th century square was built on top of the ruins, following the outline of where it once stood.
Coffee break over with, and after a very brief detour past the shops beginning to bedeck themselves with Christmas decor ready for December, it was time to head back to the real world.
Lucca was a beautiful, peaceful break from what I’d been used to so far in my Mediterranean travels, and although there were a few other visitors to the confines of the city walls, the numbers were nothing compared to other more touristic cities nearby. This is a place for a stroll, for soaking it all in, and for getting lost in, and I was a true fan.
Related: A Winters Day in Florence
What to know before you visit Lucca
- From Livorno to Lucca by train takes around one hour, depending on which train you take! Although there’s a direct train, this is only a once-daily situation, so it’s better to go to Pisa, change trains and head to Lucca from there. One-way costs around €6.50.
- Don’t forget to validate your ticket before you get on the train! This can be done by holding your ticket in the validation machines in the lobby and on the platform until the machine stamps the ticket.